For students at the University of Virginia and other universities across the country, academic success is only one part of the puzzle, albeit a very important one.
College students, many living away from home for the first time, are also learning how to manage stress, respond to all sorts of new and different situations and prepare themselves for eventual entry into a professional world in which change is the biggest constant.
A new UVA course, piloted in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Pennsylvania State University, aims to integrate those extracurricular learning experiences with intellectual topics in the classroom.
Called “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing,” the class combines disciplines from neuroscience and psychology to philosophy and art to encourage students to think more carefully about how they maintain their own mental and emotional well-being, manage stress and build positive relationships with others. It was offered to first-year students at all three schools in the fall and will be offered again in fall 2018 as part of an initial pilot program developing the course’s content and model.
The class is part of a larger “Student Flourishing Initiative,” led by UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center and partnering centers at Wisconsin and Penn State. The three universities plan to pilot the program, including the course and a repository online resources, for several years while assessing its effect on students’ mental and emotional well-being.
First-year student Tara Srivastava, from Richmond, said that the fall class really helped her transition from high school to college.
“It sounded like a great chance for personal growth, and something that I should take my first semester” to start off strong, Srivastava said.
Thanks to her mother, Srivastava was already familiar with some of the mindfulness and meditation practices introduced in the course. However, she particularly enjoyed learning about how certain practices – like deep breathing or even just showing compassion – affect the brain.
“I also really liked the module on interdependence, where we discussed how our actions affect the world around us in ways we never thought about, and how others affect us in the same way,” she said.
Each week, David Germano, a religious studies professor and the director of UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center, had the 60 students focus on one particular quality – perhaps “interdependence,” “resiliency,” “focus” or “diversity.”
Germano and his counterparts at the other two universities employed a “flipped classroom” format, using digital technology to deliver lectures and readings to students outside of class while reserving class time to explore how each topic related to students’ own lives.
“We wanted to create a learning environment that is profoundly engaged and participatory … where students are engaged in peer-to-peer relationships, doing reflective tasks together and actively making sense of the what they are learning intellectually and connecting it to their lives,” Germano said. “We want them to see that these intellectual reflections can translate to apply to their relationships, their family life, the career they want to pursue or the stress and anxiety they feel.”
Germano and his team also taught the students simple practices to train their brain, emotions and bodies outside of class. These include strategies for improving focus and concentration, guided meditations, breathing exercises and ways to assess connections between physical and emotional health.
“Our bodies are incredible parallel processers, picking up things that [our brains] can’t consciously notice right away,” Germano said. “If we are more attentive to how our bodies feel, we can pick up these signals.”
That kind of mental awareness and emotional literacy, Germano said, is essential not only for college students today, but for the working professionals they will become.
“These ideas and practices could help them throughout their academic career and as they manage issues in their private life, their social life and their careers,” he said. “Research is telling us these students’ careers won’t be like careers in the past; they’ll have to be adaptive, moving every three to four years. What frameworks and skills do they need for that, and how can we help them develop those through a series of deliberate practices?”
Srivastava said she uses several of the practices that she learned in her daily life, sometimes in quiet moments between classes or when she is trying to sleep. She’s encouraging her friends to do the same.
“I used some of these practices beforehand, but the class made me more aware of their benefits,” she said. “It also inspired me to bring up what I was learning in conversations with friends.”
Going forward, Germano and associate professor of education Karen Kurotsuchi Inkelas will work with faculty members at Wisconsin and Penn State to assess exactly how the Student Flourishing Initiative has helped students like Srivastava.
Though they are still finalizing their research plans, Germano said the study will include self-reports and various behavioral tasks – delivered through an app developed at the University of Wisconsin – as well as possibly physiological tests with a statistical sample of students.
“We are working to create this first-year academic experience for students across all three campuses and then make that experience the subject of a wide-ranging, randomized-control research program to understand the impact it might have on students’ academic performance, their resiliency and so forth,” he said.
The multi-university team also plans to develop an online portal with videos, suggested readings, interactive exercises and other resources for students and faculty members.
Already, Germano said, other universities, especially large public universities, are closely watching the class and related research.
“There is a lot of interest from other universities and colleges,” he said. “Right now, we are trying to use these three universities as incubators. Once we get to a stable point, we will share the results and resources with other schools.”
The interest among students, faculty and administrators at UVA and beyond, he said, all comes back to universities’ charge to foster students development not just as academics, but as thriving individuals, members of communities and professionals.
“Certainly, all of us who are parents want our children to flourish in the classroom, but there are other kinds of flourishing that we intensely aspire to as well,” Germano said. “We want our younger generations to have values we respect and to embody them; to be caring, resilient and able to cope with the vicissitudes of life. … We want to give them the skills they will need to not just survive, but truly thrive and flourish in their lives.”